Progressive forces must unite to promote the common good

Politics in our world has caught up with the economics of austerity and tens of millions of people are rejecting neoliberal orthodoxy.

The citizens of the UK voted to leave the EU and those of the US have elected the most openly far-right President in modern history. We have also seen the dramatic rise of the Front National in France and xenophobic nationalism in several developed northern and central European countries while blatant neo-fascism has re-emerged as a significant force in Eastern Europe. Notwithstanding the rejection of neo-liberalism, these are not progressive developments.

It is not the first time that tens of millions of working people and those rendered hopeless by the impact of austerity have lurched into the embrace of their deadliest enemies. We all know the lessons of the tragic history of the Europe of the 1930s. It is only in those countries where the Left has been able to present a united front, that the agenda of the Right has been successfully challenged. This was graphically highlighted in the recent General Election in the UK. There, because of the first past the post electoral system, all those on the Left have been forced to stay together in the Labour Party, avoiding the endless splintering that afflicts us in many other countries.

As a consequence, and under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a Democratic Socialist, uncontaminated by the compromises of the recent past, they were able to offer inspiration and hope to tens of millions of people, particularly among the young, on the basis of a solidly traditional Social Democratic manifesto. Similarly, in Portugal, the Socialist Party, supported by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, has managed to continue to govern, gradually rolling back the damage inflicted by the austerity agenda, rebuilding the economy and offering hope again. In France and Spain and indeed in Greece, vibrantly electrifying new forces on the Left have emerged, but unfortunately, they are focused too much on the destruction of the traditional Socialist parties, thus leaving the field open to the Right.

Jack O’Connor speech to #OurSIPTU Conference

Here in the Republic of Ireland we are still only emerging from the most serious economic collapse experienced in any developed country in the World since the Wall Street Crash of 1929. We in this Union, along with others in the Labour Movement, were forced to adopt a very difficult and unpopular rear-guard strategy to defend jobs, conditions and the basic social and economic infrastructure as much as possible.

We did not embrace that strategy lightly, or because we thought that one-sided austerity was fair or that it was a good idea, or that it was by any means the best way out of the crisis. We came to it only reluctantly, when we ultimately realised, that we were faced with overwhelming odds.

Then we did what any intelligent army does in those circumstances. It retreats a bit, erects whatever fortifications it can and organises behind them intending to re-take the ground lost when more fortuitous conditions develop. In short, when we were faced with the choice between making noise and making a difference — we chose to make a difference for working people. It wasn’t for the fainthearted!

In this regard, I want to emphatically reiterate our appreciation to all the thousands of shop stewards, activists and individual members who stood with the Union, whether they agreed with us or not, throughout what has been the most difficult period in our economic history. But we have been regaining ground. We have been winning pay increases across the private and commercial semi-state sectors. The process of pay restoration in the public service which began with the Lansdowne Road Agreement in the middle of 2015 has continued with its extension this year. We have also begun to utilise the provisions of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015 to win pay increases, which are legally binding on the employers, across whole industries, as well as new recognition agreements in a number of individual companies.

The tax-cutting narrative reinforces deeply ingrained and carefully cultivated misconceptions of individual self-interest. However, it is not in our actual self-interest as individuals at all. It is not in any of our interests as individuals that young people have to pay multiples of the cost of building a house to put a roof over their heads, due to the absence of a properly funded public housing programme.

Neither is it in our interests as individuals that people have to waste their scarce resources paying ever-escalating private health insurance premiums, due to the absence of a properly funded public health service.

It is not in our interests as individuals, either, that people do not have access to the best education, training and re-skilling facilities in the world, due to the absence of a properly funded education system. And it is certainly not in our interests as individuals either, that the potential productivity and growth of our economy is compromised by inadequate public investment.

What’s actually being perpetrated under the guise of ‘promoting the incentive to work’ or ‘rewarding people’ is a different thing altogether. It’s the criminal degradation of our public services, in order to facilitate the wholesale robbery of the people by a veritable army of land hoarders, speculators, licensed drug peddlers and corporate money lenders! It’s time to wake up and smell the roses because instead of paying tax to fund our public services, together as a community, we’re actually ending up paying twice as much and more to these legalised bandits.

That is why we are advancing the proposition that all available resources should be focused on the primary national project of housing our people, caring for the young, the elderly and the ill, supporting our people with disabilities and educating, training and re-skilling our people in order to build a decent society for everyone who lives on the island of Ireland, between now and the centenary of the foundation of the State in 2022. This would be a laudable project around which we could mobilise as a people, and forget about cutting taxes until then.

The bottom line is that we must have decent public services and it is far better that we fund them together as a community, through taxation, rather than allowing ourselves to be ripped off by private predators. Those advocating tax cutting, which inevitably disproportionately benefits the better off, conveniently ignore the fact that Ireland’s public spending, as a share of gross national income, is joint bottom of the list of EU countries and one third less than the average EU member state.

There will be more finance available to the government from 2019 onwards after the structural deficit is eliminated but it will still not be enough to achieve the dramatic improvements required. We will also have to adopt a more flexible interpretation of the EU fiscal rules, as advocated by our own Union and indeed laterally even by the employers’ organisation IBEC. This would release somewhere between €4bn and €7bn over the next five years. Then there are the matters which are entirely and absolutely within our own control.

For example, there is absolutely no justification to go on gifting bad employers in the hospitality sector, a direct subsidy of €500m from the taxpayer through concessionary VAT rates which would build more than 2,500 local authority houses. They won’t even go into the Joint Labour Committees to negotiate a living wage for their employees, who are among the lowest paid in the country.

The wealthier generally will have to contribute more. For working people, the issue of the right to organise and bargain collectively is central to the success of our ambitious strategy for 2022. This is because collective bargaining takes place at the point at which the benefits of output are distributed and very often where the nature and character of jobs are designed.

The OECD estimates that we are the 3rd most unequal country in Europe, measured by market income. This is offset to some degree by the more progressive aspects of our tax system, but it is manifestly evident in the workplace.

Thanks to the efforts of the Labour Party, the 2015 Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act has progressed collective bargaining rights further than ever before in the history of the State. But, workers in Ireland still do not enjoy a constitutional entitlement to participate fully in collective bargaining with their employers. This will require a Constitutional Amendment. So, we will have to work with everyone who cares about workers, about equality, about low pay, about precarious work and exploitation, to press for a referendum to provide for the fundamental right to engage in collective bargaining for every worker in Ireland.

What we are promoting here in this comprehensive proposition for social progress, which is rooted in the values of social solidarity would serve as the kernel of a new relationship between all the people who inhabit this island, including those who are coming from elsewhere to pursue the hope of a better life along with us.

It would see us all enjoying a better future, framed in the context of the European community of nations, (but not in some kind of Federal Super State) and from that platform, we would all play our part as citizens of the world. It will be necessary to forge a new alliance of all the genuinely progressive forces on the island of Ireland who are committed to the primacy of the common good to realise this great aspiration.

Meanwhile, we will continue to work hard organising workers in Northern Ireland. Our membership there has been growing steadily for a number of years now. The trade union movement in both jurisdictions is also focused on ensuring that workers do not pay the price of Brexit — and we are all fully engaged to that end, working with our comrades across the entire island.

We must also continue to do whatever we can to extend support to those who are suffering the burden of oppression, injustice and exploitation throughout the world.

None of this is for the fainthearted. Nothing that’s worth achieving ever is! It involves rowing against the tide. As the custodians of the legacy of Connolly and Larkin, we must rise to this challenge and work together to win the battle for equality for everyone.

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